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Maya Hugashi Wakana, Performing the Everyday in Henry James’s Late Novels.

Hubert Teyssandier
p. 247-249
Référence(s) :

Maya Hugashi Wakana, Performing the Everyday in Henry James’s Late Novels. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2009, x-193 p. ISBN: 978-0-7546-6744-5 (hbk).

Texte intégral

1Maya Hugashi Wakana’s book is a microsociologically-oriented study of Henry James’s last completed novels, based on a wide range of social studies, in particular the works of Erving Goffman—among others The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life (1959), Stigma (1963), and Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior (1967). Using Goffman’s theoretical models (the notions of stigma, face, backstage and front-stage exchanges, teams), the approach of Ms Wakana views Henry James’s representations of everyday life as performed arrangements, and maintains Goffman’s view that “the real world of social interaction and the made-up world of literature are interdependent”. This study also takes in the moral imperatives of the two frequently conflicting orders of existence: the micro and the macro social orders. Among the macro elements, one may list nationality, economics, gender; among the micro elements: ease, honor, civility. The interest lies mostly where the macro and micro intersect, so that face-to-face interactions of individual Jamesian characters are viewed in the broader social context of power relations based on money and sex in a specific historical situation. Microsocial behaviors however are in themselves immemorial.

2The book’s specific center of interest is the face-to-face personal interconnections in the micro world of everyday life, which has its own code of values, based on self respect, considerateness, and the avoidance of shame or embarrassment. Indeed embarrassing situations are central to the novels under discussion here, for example the unexpected encounter of Chad and Madame de Vionnet by Strether in the countryside near Paris. Ms Wakana analyses with great minuteness examples of backstage exchanges that take place in privacy between two characters, and front stage exchanges that occur publicly on the occasion of more or less extended social gatherings. While consistently following Goffman, Ms Wakana is also well aware of the tradition of Jamesian criticism, to which she refers extensively, and while having her own specific approach, the questions she raises about James’s last three completed novels are the same as those that have long baffled James’s readers and critics: “Where is Strether at the end of his trajectory in The Ambassadors?” “Who is to blame for the unhappy outcome at the end of The Wings of the Dove?” “What is the meaning of Maggie’s final embrace with the Prince in The Golden Bowl?” (p. 18). Beyond those unavoidable questions, which are here re-phrased, Ms Wakana offers extensive and original close readings of the three novels, with two chapters out of four on The Golden Bowl.

3In the chapter on The Ambassadors, the analysis of Strether’s “double-consciousness” is quite interesting, and brings out convincingly the intellectual complexity of the character, who is a Woollett man, and who also enjoys Europe, while feeling he must not, and even cannot, enjoy it because of his Woollett sensibilities. Strether is further divided by his double mission: his official mission as Mrs Newsome’s ambassador, i.e. to bring Chad back to Woollett, and his unofficial, private mission, i.e. to overcome his sense of “poorness,” to liberate himself. It appears that he fails in both missions, and is “finally unallied, unconnected, uninvolved, and floating” (p. 55). The analysis of the scene by the river (among others) is the occasion of demonstrating the way the microsocial interactions function, in order to overcome the embarrassment caused by a “disruptive occasion”.

4As Strether realizes afterwards, “Marie’s behavior had been a performance,” and as Ms Wakana comments, “Marie [de Vionnet] is simply contributing her manner/moral share in order to normalize the interaction ritual for all present, as does Strether—as well they manner/morally should” (p. 49). Through their tactful role playing, all those concerned save their faces and keep embarrassment under control, but to Woollett sensibilities the “charming affair” is a lie, and Chad is only Chad.

5The following chapter is a close reading of The Wings of the Dove, viewed as composed of three integrated narratives: those of Milly Theale, Merton Densher, and Kate Croy. Ms Wakana objects to the readings that view the novel solely in terms of victims and victimizers, and uses prominently the notion of “felt stigmatization,” based on the Goffmanian notion of “stigma”. The three characters regarded as central all have in common their own “felt stigmatization”: Milly’s sense of cultural “poorness” (despite her wealth), in addition to her illness, Densher’s sense of his inadequacies and failings, in addition to his poverty, Kate’s sense of inheriting her father’s dishonor. As Ms Wakana views it:

The Wings of the Dove is not so much a description of “a relationship of predators and victims, deceivers and deceived, actors and acted upon”. . . , as it is of Milly, Kate, and Densher’s efforts to survive and escape from their respective senses of shame and vulnerability resulting from what I have referred to as their felt stigmatization (p. 82).

6The dinner party given by Milly in Venice is a show of “phantom normalcy,” in which Milly acts as if nothing was the matter, while Kate and Densher honor “the social rule of face-to-face interaction” and participate in Milly’s performance (p. 69). Earlier in the novel, the reciprocal embarrassment resulting from Milly’s encounter with Kate and Merton in the National Gallery is kept under control through a civilized performance in which they all play their own face-saving, civilized roles in relation to each other.

7The two chapters on The Golden Bowl make up a major study of the most difficult of James’s novels, opposing to the “official” story of Maggie Verver an “unofficial” one, according to which Maggie’s close relationship with her father ceases to be real, while she finds herself in the role of Amerigo’s jailer, aware of the rift that divides them:

Amerigo sees “nothing but” Maggie. Maggie sees that Amerigo either does not, or chooses not to, understand her meaning, so that the one thing she knows is that they are not performing from the same script. . . . Therefore as she physically embraces and is embraced by the object of her desire, Maggie knows that no two beings could be more apart (p. 150).

8At the end of The Golden Bowl, according to this reading, the Ververs (Adam and Charlotte) and the Assinghams (Bob and Fanny) are the happier married couples.

9Throughout the novel the Goffmanian teams have kept forming, and breaking apart, replaced by different teams: Amerigo-Charlotte, Amerigo-Fanny, Amerigo-Charlotte vs. Adam and Maggie, Maggie-Amerigo. However from beginning to end the Assinghman team has remained the most steadfastly united in reciprocated considerateness.

10The conclusion neatly unites the three studies, viewing the late novels as responses to the dilemmas civility poses, and the cracked golden bowl found in a Bloomsbury shop is seen as emblematic of the fissure that threatens to surface in the tactful performance of life. There is no doubt that Henry James was “an artist of artful life”; whether he also had “the makings of a social scientist” has to remain an open question.

11Ms Wakana’s book is an interesting contribution to the field of Henry James studies, and her close readings of the three late novels, based on her own, coherent, and well-defined method, show competence, intelligence, and subtlety.

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Hubert Teyssandier, « Maya Hugashi Wakana, Performing the Everyday in Henry James’s Late Novels. », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, 72 Automne | 2010, 247-249.

Référence électronique

Hubert Teyssandier, « Maya Hugashi Wakana, Performing the Everyday in Henry James’s Late Novels. », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 72 Automne | 2010, mis en ligne le 29 août 2016, consulté le 17 janvier 2018. URL :

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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